A number of years ago when I was working as a waitress, I learned an important lesson about attending to the impression I made on people who have power. I had been working lunches for a few months, waiting to be moved to the more desired dinner shifts. When I observed that a more recently hired server had started working dinners, I approached my manager to ask about this.
After a bit of back-and-forth, she finally stated, “I’m just not confident that you would be able to handle the demands of a dinner shift.” I was surprised, confused and also a bit insulted. After all, didn’t I always show up on time, finish my side work, tuck in my shirt, tolerate the chef, refrain from complaining, cover shifts, remember my name tag and keep water glasses filled? “Yes,” she answered, “but you also ask for help a lot.”
I was incredulous. “But you always tell the waitstaff to ask for help if there’s something that can make the experience better for customers. So that’s what I do. I ask for help.”
Her response was, “Yes, but other people don’t.”
A few weeks later, I was privately delighted to arrive at work (at lunchtime) and be informed that my manager had been fired. No reasons were given for her termination, but I felt vindicated nonetheless.
I also never got moved to the dinner shift.
Whatever job you are in, people’s impressions of you matter, and some people’s impressions matter more than others. It is also true that what people say and how they actually judge or evaluate you are, at times, inconsistent. This applies as much to smart, highly educated people as it does to anyone else.
Also, to be clear, your entire experience in graduate school, not just your time spent as a teaching or research assistant, is a job.
So, yes, you are in a position of high stress and low compensation for an unclear number of hours per week, reporting to identified and unidentified supervisors about stated and unstated job duties about which they themselves may or may not be clear. Also, your current and future career often depends on your ability to succeed in this challenging context for anywhere from five to 10 years.
Therefore, I would argue that, given the lack of clarity in which most doctoral students live, it is very much to your advantage to create clarity. Happily, developing the ability to do this is a skill that is extremely valuable both for grad school and just about any career you might pursue afterward.
To create this clarity, it’s best to figure out as early as possible whom you need to keep happy and how. In graduate school, you might consider the following people:
Yourself. This is the powerful person in the whole equation who is most easily ignored. It is also the person who has the greatest potential to outweigh others’ negative impressions of you.
Doctoral programs repeatedly put even the most grounded, secure people through the self-confidence grinder. In some cases, this can be so intense that it can have devastating consequences on people’s psychological, emotional and/or physical health. Paying active and ongoing attention to what your impression of yourself is, and what that impression is based on, may very well be the key to completing your Ph.D. and to building your career after you’re done.
Claim and exercise your autonomy so that you can decide for yourself what you think of yourself, both as a scholar and as a person.
Your loved ones. Not surprisingly, they are the second most likely candidates to be ignored, also at great peril.
Because you have people in your life that know, love and support you, it is easy to stop paying regular attention to what they are thinking or feeling about you. You need them; they need you. So, check in, spend time, give in, express appreciation, listen carefully and love consciously. Make sure you know what matters most to them and do what you can to attend to those needs and desires. Don’t allow graduate school to ruin your most important relationships.
Your fellow graduate students. These are the people who form the core of your professional network, both while you are in grad school together and in the years to come. Yes, there are friendships, but the whole community is composed of people who will most likely have tremendous influence over what happens in your long-term career.
Because there are almost no clear boundaries between personal and professional relationships with your grad student community, the impression you create is complex and multifaceted. What do your lab mates think of your record keeping? What do people in your entering cohort know about your area of research? How did you act at the end-of-semester barbecue last year? How did things resolve in that seminar when you got into that heated intellectual argument? How many other grad students even know that you exist?
All of these types of questions factor into people’s impression of you. It’s also what shapes what will come to mind for them 10 or 20 years from now when you contact them to discuss a position you’re applying for at their place of employment, or when you ask to be introduced to their boss. This goes both for academic and nonacademic careers.
Keep in mind your fellow grad students are your long-term professional network, and treat them as such.
Your adviser or PI. This is the relationship where you already recognize that you can gain or lose a lot with regard to your career. It’s also the relationship where you can do many small things to create a positive impression.
Do you know what matters most to your adviser or PI? Some typical answers often have to do with where their research money is coming from, whether they are meeting requirements for tenure or promotion, and what is causing them the most stress in their daily life. Listen and observe, and it will most likely be clear what their areas of greatest concern are. If not, you can ask them, and then listen for both the explicit and implicit answers they give.
Once you know for sure what they care about most, then you can start to also identify the things they don’t really care about. Then you can better prioritize all the things you feel you’re supposed to do and take actions to become a well-liked and highly appreciated graduate student now, and perhaps a potential colleague later on.
Find out how often your adviser or PI actually wants to see you in person -- and where and doing what. Consider both the expected (the lab, the TA office suite, in class) and the less expected (a retirement party, a guest lecture they organized, an end-of-semester barbecue).
You also need to know and follow through on when and how they want to know about your academic progress. Not hearing from you when they want and expect to creates anxiety, frustration and sometimes distrust.
Last, recognize that professors consistently are some of the worst bosses ever, and do your best not to blame them. After all, they are trained academics, not managers.
Also it helps you to understand that, as a graduate student, one of your most important unstated duties is to graciously help them to be the best boss they can be. I encourage you to resist the temptation to argue that this should not be your responsibility. The truth is that all employees always have to learn to manage their supervisors, whether they are department chairs, CEOs, directors or restaurant managers.
Graduate school is hard, and thinking about the impression you’re making on people may feel like one more difficult to-do. However, it is mostly an issue of where and how you direct your attention.
Developing your impression-management skills with the people who matter the most is one of the biggest investments you can make in your long-term career. And you just might get assigned to the dinner shift.